Photo: USA TODAY Sports
Photo: USA TODAY Sports

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Before last September, not many people — even hardcore college football fans — knew the name Deon Yelder. Even those inside the city limits of Bowling Green, Kentucky didn’t know much about the Western Kentucky tight end. Up until the start of last season, the Hilltopper was famous for one play: blocking an extra point in a double-OT win over Middle Tennessee State.

Prior to that, Yelder had played sparingly in three seasons and had not even caught a single pass. But with new head coach Mike Sanford and his staff taking over, Yelder got a fresh start. He not only won the starting tight end job but would go on to lead the team in TD catches (seven), set a single-season school mark for receiving yards by a tight end (688) and finish second on the team in receptions (52), all while showing he could block effectively, too.

That earned him a spot in the NFLPA Bowl, followed by a call-up to the Senior Bowl less than a week later, where he caught a touchdown. Now he’s being looked at hard by NFL scouts — despite not getting invited to the scouting combine — following a successful pro day workout and has had several team visits prior to the NFL draft at the end of the month.

Yelder took time to chat with PFW about his long road to this point, his motivation while not playing, two deaths to people close to him, working with former NFL pass catchers Wes Welker and Byron Chamberlain, getting on planes for the first time in his life, not owning a car and — the secret to his success — cereal.

PFW: You’re born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. Are you a horseracing fan?

Yelder: Not for real. But I live across the street from [Churchill Downs], so I see a lot of people coming through there.

PFW: You ever go to the Kentucky Derby?

Yelder: Yeah, I went years ago with my grandmother. I went to the infield when I was in high school. I went around the track with my grandmother when I was in middle school.

PFW: You got to watch yourself in that infield area. It can get a little wild in there.

Yelder: Oh yeah, it does. [laughs] You’re right about that.

PFW: When did you first start playing football?

Yelder: I played as a kid for the West End Cowboys. My grandfather signed me up. I was the age of 9. I ended up playing all the way through my senior season of Little League football. I didn’t play much in middle school; we didn’t have a middle school team. I went to high school at Southern High School in Louisville, Kentucky. I didn’t play any there until my junior year.

PFW: Were you more into other sports at the time?

Yelder: I played basketball at the beginning of high school. Then towards the middle, I decided to go out for football again because it’s my first-love sport. That’s when I joined the team.

PFW: How much did you play? And what position?

Yelder: My first year I started at receiver. I had a lot of big games. We ended up going 5-6 or 6-5, I can’t remember.

PFW: How big were you at this point?

Yelder: I was around 6-foot-3, maybe 190 or 185.

PFW: Were you getting much recruiting attention late in high school?

Yelder: I had a couple schools that were recruiting me. I ended up getting Kentucky, Western Kentucky, Morehead State, Murray State and some smaller schools. Plus I got a couple letters from Tennessee. At first, Western Kentucky was recruiting me hard. I never went to any camps, so I was thinking if Western Kentucky offered me, I thought more offers would come in. But it never happened, so I ended up going to Western Kentucky as a preferred walk-on.

PFW: You redshirted a year and then you don’t play in 2014 as a redshirt freshman — after that season what was going through your mind? Any thoughts about transferring or anything?

Yelder: No, sir. My first year, my redshirt year, I had a fun year. I was learning everything and getting acclimated to college, which was a blessing. I knew I probably wasn’t going to get as good a chance to play as the four or five receivers coming in as scholarship guys. I knew I had to keep grinding, working hard, so that’s mainly what I did.

Ate, grinded, went to school. The same thing every single day.

PFW: Did you come in as a receiver and then move to tight end after you arrived?

Yelder: I came in as a receiver in 2013, and in 2015 I ended up moving to tight end. The new OC who came from Tennessee [Tyson Helton] moved me to tight end.

PFW: Fast-forward to your junior year — middle of the season, you guys have lost two of three games, you’re at Middle Tennessee, it’s second overtime and they’ve just scored. Please tell the rest of the story  …

Yelder: Double overtime. They had just scored. My tight end coach and special-teams coach, Tony Levine, starts yelling out, ‘Field-goal block! Field-goal block!’ I was on that team, so I ended up going in … there was a guy named ‘Iggy’ [Joel Iyiegbuniwe], he’s beside me to my left, and a guy named Kalvin Robinson to my right.

We had been practicing all week with coach, working on alignments, adjustments, trying to figure out where the kid was going to kick. We watched [MTSU kicker Cody Clark] and we’d seen he had a low trajectory on his kicks. The coaches were saying this was a week we could get one of these blocks.

It ended up happening. It was a blessing. I got my hand on the ball. Knocked it down. Everyone was going crazy. We just went crazy the whole day. We scored the next touchdown [in overtime] and ended up kicking the extra point. Ended up winning the game, 44-43.

PFW: What goes through your mind in a moment like that?

Yelder: The ball hit my hand and at that moment, it was like … ‘Oh my god, I just blocked a kick.’ I thought, ‘Dang, this is my first big college play. Everyone is going to know about me.’ I blocked the kick for the game, basically. It was crazy. That was the first time I really felt anything like that. Everyone on the sideline is coming up to me, jumping and chest-bumping me.

I said to myself, ‘So this is what it feels like when you make a big play in college football.’ I just thanked everyone for helping me, especially Coach Levine for spending extra time with me.

PFW: And yet coming into 2017, you hadn’t caught a pass in a game yet. But there was a new coaching staff in place. Did they give you some kind of idea that you might have a larger role last spring?

Yelder: No, sir. When they came in, I just said to myself … I am coming in competing against another senior, a junior and two freshmen. I thought, this is all I got left, so I am going to put it all on the line. I gave it everything I had. I went out there every day and worked on everything — my starting stance, my blocking, everything.

I put in my time with my tight end coach, Ryan Mahaffey, and I felt like I was getting better. We kept [progressing] and I felt I was getting stronger. So that became my whole mindset with the new coaching staff. It was just a new mindset. I knew I had a clean slate with them, so basically they didn’t see anything bad with me right then. So why can’t I prove other people wrong and earn a starting spot?

Just work, work, work and compete, compete, compete. That was my whole goal. I wanted a starting spot.

PFW: What drives you? Where does your motivation come from?

Yelder: It comes from where I come from. I am from a little place in Louisville. I grew up in a single-parent home. My mom and dad were close, but I grew up with my mom running my life. A lot of time my grandmother, too. She actually passed away.

I want more things for myself and my family. I have younger brothers and sisters that looked up to me, so I wanted to be a role model. So therefore I’ve tried to show them something. I was never going to quit. If I start something, I am going to finish it, no matter what happens to me along the way.

I feel like I need to stay hungry to achieve that. That’s just getting better every day. If I don’t do that, I feel like I let them down too. That’s what I’ve tried to do, and if I get better every day, there’s no telling what the limit is for me. And for the whole family, if I can help them out along the way. I treat every today like it could all be gone tomorrow. It was never there before, all this attention I am getting now, so I am not taking any of it for granted.

PFW: Can you tell us about what role your grandmother played?

Yelder: She played a very big role in my life. She ended up passing away last year. It was summertime, and it was a hard time for me at first. But I know she’s in a better place … it’s just tough. She passed away from cancer.

She was my dad’s mother. She and I spent a lot of time together. I stayed at her house a lot, many weekends I’d stay over there. Sometimes the whole summer, just to hang out and stay around her and my family as I could and just be involved. It was a hard blow knowing my granny was gone. That was someone I was really close to, but I know she’s on my shoulder right now and she keeps me going.

I also lost a close friend to diabetes. I got him on my shoulder too. Whenever I think things are tough, I think about both of them. They keep me motivated but also grounded. If I can work hard and make them proud, I’ve done my job.

PFW: Tell me about your friend.

Yelder: His name was Dewayne Snead. He went by Jamar. He was a close friend of the family. I grew up with him. Knew him for a long time. I knew him so long, he was always waiting for me to come to a football game. That was one of the things I was trying to do, to get out there on the field [at WKU] so that he could see me score a touchdown. I promised him I would get him to one of my games. It didn’t happen, but he’s in good hands now. I was very close to him and I keep him close now still.

PFW: You earn that job and now all of a sudden this staff is using you all over the place — blocker, receiver, Wildcat runner, runs on punt fakes. Did part of you think, why did this have to take so long?

Yelder: I was really excited for all that. Anything to help the team win. We started practicing trick plays, two-point conversions, stuff like that. I was volunteering. I was willing to work on everything. I wanted to help the team win and show my versatility.

PFW: You finished the season strong. Seemed like you were scoring a touchdown a week from the Charlotte game on. Was your confidence just growing? More chemistry with QB Mike White? What was the biggest factor?

Yelder: I think it was a little of both, coaches calling more plays for the tight end a little more and Mike White looking my way more. I felt like I was more comfortable after not playing offense for four years. Just getting into the rhythm of catching footballs in games and the live action of that. I wasn’t used to that at first. It was my first year actually getting the ball; I played before, obviously, but I never got the ball.

Getting used to it a bit, I started saying to myself, ‘Hey, I might get this many catches this game, I might get the ball a little more here and there.’ It was just a different mentality than before.

PFW: What was the biggest change offensively this year for the team? It seemed like things took a turn around midseason.

Yelder: The biggest thing is we sped our tempo up. That was the main difference. Some play calling differences. But the second half of the season, it was really a tempo change more than anything. We felt like we were giving the defense too much time to get their calls in. They were figuring out our formations easier before. We picked the tempo up, and it seemed like it caught defenses off guard more.

PFW: It seemed like Mike White improved, too, down the stretch.

Yelder: Yes, sir. He was always confident and we believed in him. That’s my guy. I am pretty close to him. He helped me out this year. He was always comfortable back in the pocket. But this year it felt like he was helped by that tempo. That’s when he played best. He was great for us.

PFW: Can you describe the whirlwind of playing in the NFLPA game and then coming to the Senior Bowl to compete there?

Yelder: It was a blessing, first of all. I got to experience the whole thing and play with guys you hear about on TV but don’t know much about them or who they are. Just the experience of playing with new people was cool too. New coaches on offense, special teams … just learning a few new things in that short time. I learned how older and younger NFL players try to make it in this league. How everything goes.

That was really educational. I learned a lot from Byron Chamberlain, my tight end coach that week. He played eight years in the league and won a Super Bowl ring. Learned a lot from him, blocking-wise, just trying to pick up whatever I could in that short time.

That carried into the Senior Bowl. I got invited there and it was just crazy. That was three days later and I thought, ‘Wow, I am going to the Senior Bowl.’ Fresh off a plane to go play with some of the best players in the country. Just being there, I felt like I belonged there. I fit in with them and showed I could block and catch the ball with the best players around.

PFW: When did you get the invitation to the Senior Bowl? I know you arrived midweek down there.

Yelder: I got the call Tuesday night. I hopped on a plane that night and arrived in Pensacola, Florida. A driver picked me up and took me to Mobile, which is like an hour away. The next morning I am going to get breakfast with the team and going to meetings. Then practice right after that. I went in there with the right mindset, to just get it done.

I meet with the [Houston Texans] coaches and they helped me right away in terms of catching up. I spent a lot of time with [Texans receivers coach] Wes Welker, one of the great receivers I looked up to when I was younger. He’s a worker. I spent time with him, he taught me the offense and I ended up picking up the offense quickly. I went out there and practiced, full pads, both days.

PFW: Did not getting invited to the NFL scouting combine sting?

Yelder: I never was worried about it. If it happened, it happened. I faced a whole lot of obstacles my whole life, ones bigger than getting an invite or not. I just stepped right over that. Just more fire to my flame. I watched the combine on TV and it just gave me more things I needed to work on. If I see someone doing something good, I am going to try to beat that.

PFW: Do you think your pro day helped send a message to NFL teams? Your numbers would have put you in the top five at your position in most of the workouts.

Yelder: I didn’t look at it that way. I just wanted to announce myself. I am Deon Yelder, Western Kentucky tight end. Ready to play, ready to show up to any camp anywhere. I came out not worrying about the numbers. I wanted to stay energetic and get better one minute to the next.

PFW: And now you’re a wanted man — ton of visits with NFL teams. What is the impression you’re getting from them right now?

Yelder: Right now, it’s … who would have thought I would have been in this place? I am not nervous or worried about it. I let people know I know football and I am ready to be coached. I go into meetings with teams ready to listen. I bring a notepad. I write things down. We watch film and I tell them what I did wrong in my eyes. I want them to know I am coachable and that I want to get better. The coaches say, ‘This can be better,’ and I write that down. I’ve kept those notes and looked at them and I work at those things in between the meetings.

The whole experience has been wild. I am flying on planes to go visit teams. I had never flown on a single plane before college football, and now this. Going from Cleveland to Kansas City and stuff like that … the whole things is a blessing.

PFW: What other teams do you have meetings set up with?

Green Bay Packers, Titans, Bengals … and that’s about it that I know of for now.

PFW: I know the Bengals are probably the closest team to you growing up. Were they your favorite team?

Yelder: The team I watched the most was the Dallas Cowboys. My favorite player was Terrell Owens.

PFW: And now you get to see him go into the Hall of Fame this summer.

Yelder: I can’t wait. I want to get there one day myself.

PFW: Couple of fun ones. Best song — or best artist — to work out to?

Yelder: I work out to Young Jeezy. I feel like his music is motivational. Every song has a purpose to it, whether it be a struggle, whether it be upcoming, things that come up in the way of you. I just feel like he gets it. The issue of purpose. It motivates you to go out and go hard.

PFW: Favorite guilty-pleasure food?

Yelder: Cereal.

PFW: I wasn’t expecting that.

Yelder: Yeah, I love almost all cereal. My favorites are Reese’s Puffs or Trix. I love it. I can’t eat as much now because there’s so much sugar in it. But I would eat it all the time in college. Like four or five bowls a day. Before games, everything. That’s one thing I did every day in college.

PFW: TV show or movie you’re addicted to?

Yelder: I am addicted to a new show called ‘Siren.’ But the show I watched the most was ‘Teen Wolf.’ I loved it. You see all these creations and monsters and stuff like that. A lot of stuff happened in that show. There was an episode where he turned into an actual monster. He had these friends he worked with closely, like these doctors, and it was really crazy.

PFW: What kind of car do you drive?

Yelder: No car, sir. I walk. I take the bus.

PFW: Will you buy a car if you sign a pro contract?

Yelder: I am not worried about a car. I just want to make a team.

PFW: Money is no issue. What place do you most want to visit? Anywhere in the world.

Yelder: I want to go to Africa and experience the culture. All I have seen is shows and commercials. I want to know what it’s like over there. I would like to experience the culture firsthand.